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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 22, 2004

Tiny town of Oquawka center of golf universe

 •  Four Hawai'i golfers ousted from Girls' Junior tourney
 •  Holes in one
 •  Golf notices

By Reid Hanley
Chicago Tribune

OQUAWKA, Ill. — The endless fields of corn and soybeans stop here at the Mississippi River. This is a fishing and boating town of 1,539 people.

Fans from Todd Hamilton's home course, the Hend-Co Hills Golf Club at Biggsville, Ill., celebrated on Sunday after watching Hamilton beat Ernie Els in a playoff to win the British Open.

Associated Press

On Sunday it became a golf town. When Todd Hamilton tapped in for par on the 76th hole of the 133rd British Open, there was not another town in the world — not St. Andrews, not Pinehurst, not Pebble Beach — that was more important to the game in that moment.

Oquawka (pronounced O-KWAK-a) was mostly known — if it was known at all — for its proximity to the great river, and for its pork tenderloin sandwiches. There's also the Alexis Phelps House, which is on the National Historic Register, and the grave of circus elephant Norma Jean, who was struck by lightning on July 17, 1972, and was buried where she fell.

Now it is known as the home of the 2004 British Open champion.

Nearly all of the eyes in town were glued to the television Sunday, especially the two belonging to Kent Hamilton, Todd's father. When the last putt fell, the little river town erupted.

"It was wild," said Linda Hawbaker, Hamilton's aunt, an Oquawka native who lives in Wrigleyville. "There were some fireworks going off, people were honking their car horns, boats passing by honked and waved. It was really something."

Ten miles away at the Hend-Co Hills Club, the converted cornfield where Hamilton learned to play golf, the reaction was similar. The clubhouse was up for grabs.

"It was mayhem," general manager Bryan Hubbard said. "I thought we were going to have to replace the windows and restructure the building. It was something."

You, too, can succeed

Hend-Co Hills found itself with several new customers on Monday. It's now a neatly kept 18-hole layout with trees and water.

"It's the best-kept secret in Henderson County," Hubbard said.

Local youngsters like Union High School golfer Kyle Koopman have more incentive to practice. Who knows how many grade-schoolers in the area now want golf clubs?

"There are thousands of kids out there just like Todd," Hawbaker was saying. "It just shows you don't have to be from a big town, have rich parents and live in a nice climate. Even if you don't have those things, you can still make it."

Hamilton's British Open triumph is a great story of a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie beating the game's greatest players. How he came to be a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie is a better one. The journey is every bit as interesting as the destination.

"I've always thought in the back of my mind, I'd love to see him win," Kent Hamilton said. "But he's 38 years old, and now, with all the programs there are for golf, there are two, three, four kids on every block. I thought maybe this wouldn't happen, but he got to be on the PGA Tour, like he always wanted to do.

"Now, gee whiz, the rest is history."

As Todd Hamilton, top, was kissing the Claret Jug, his father Kent Hamilton was celebrating at his home in Oquawka, Ill.

Associated Press

Kent Hamilton, who owned the town grocery store, started taking his young son to Hend-Co Hills when Todd was about 8 years old. Todd was something of a natural athlete, with good hand-eye coordination, and he found an outlet for his talent in golf. He loved the game, and couldn't get enough of it.

The more he played, the better he got. The better he got, the more he wanted to play. He is a self-taught player who crafted his swing by going around Hend-Co as often as seven times a day.

"He used to come daylight to darkness," said Tom Coursey, one of Hend-Co's original members. "I played a little golf with him. There isn't anybody more deserving."

Within a year Todd was beating his father. He was barely 10 when he started breaking par.

The Hamiltons would take their vacations and travel the junior circuit. For a kid from a nine-hole cornfield, Todd did well.

"He got in a lot of junior tournaments," Kent Hamilton recalls. "He got to play against the kids he would play against in college."

But there was no golf team at Union High School in Biggsville until Kent Hamilton started pushing for one.

"I said, 'I've got a kid here with some talent, don't you think we could do something?' " he recalled. "They said they didn't have any money in the budget. I said I was willing to pay for it. It was something like $30. I paid it."

Hamilton developed into a two-time Class A state champion and earned a scholarship to Oklahoma, where his teammates included future PGA Tour pros Grant Wait, Glen Day and Steve Elkington. He turned pro after four years at Oklahoma and his career took several interesting turns.

Seeing the world

Stymied by repeated failures at the PGA Tour's qualifying school, Hamilton played on pro tours in Canada, Asia and Japan and on the second-tier U.S. circuit now known as the Nationwide Tour.

The money was good, especially in Japan, where Hamilton won four tournaments last year. But playing overseas meant time away from his family: wife Jacque, his high school sweetheart, and their three children.

Finally, on his eighth attempt, Hamilton earned his PGA Tour card last fall. In March he won the Honda Classic with birdies on the last two holes. In April he brought his father to the Masters.

"It was great," said Kent Hamilton, who remembers being so overcome with pride he went behind a tree at Augusta National and cried.

Sunday, Kent Hamilton watched the drama from his bachelor house overlooking the Mississippi.

There were moments of doubt, such as a bogey on the 72nd hole that necessitated the playoff with Ernie Els, but overall Todd Hamilton exhibited the same calm demeanor he has demonstrated since he was a kid. In fact, he was the only Hamilton who was calm when the tournament ended.

A flood of pride

The Oquawka Diner was alive with conversation Monday morning. There wasn't a golfer in the house, but locals Ben Sells, Larry Lain, Jim Sells and Arlan Lain were proud of what their fellow Oquawkan had done 5,000 miles away. Winning the British Open was just about as big as the Great Flood of 1993.

"It was great," Ben Sells said. "I liked when he took the trophy over to the crowd and let them touch it. That's Todd. He's a down-to-earth kid who never got in trouble."

Carol and Marvin Brown drove over on their motorcycle from Muscatine, Iowa, on Monday to see how Oquawka was celebrating its native son's victory. They also wanted to see Hend-Co and the rest of the sights.

"They have a plaque for the elephant," Carol said, "and they need to get one for Todd, too."

Bill Kwon is on vacation. His Around the Greens report will return next week.